Professor David Williams
PHOTO: CLAUDIO CALLIGARIS
A monstrous task
SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | Professor David Williams may soon be rewarded for labouring nearly 20 years on his last book, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996).
Williams, who has taught English at McGill since 1967, recently found out the 408-page tome has been short-listed for a Raymond Klibansky Scholarly Book Prize, awarded by the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada. Winners will be revealed during the Federation's general assembly late this month.
"Being nominated was a big surprise for me," says Williams, comfortably seated in his Arts Building office, the crisp fall breeze from an open window flowing through his halo of white hair and a smile curling his lips.
Williams, who has written five other books, including one called Chaucer and Language to be published in 1999, says it took nearly two decades to complete Deformed Discourse because he was often sidetracked by other projects and commitments, like chairing McGill's Department of English from 1979 to 1989. Time-consuming research also slowed down the process.
"The book would not have taken 20 years to finish had I worked on it full time," he says, adding every writing break would require that he reread much of his manuscript. "Each time I would start writing again, I was always hoping I would find enough time to get beyond where I had stopped."
But finish it he did. Williams, who teaches a course on mediaeval monsters called "The Grotesque," says he has been interested in monsters since he was a high school sophomore. It was then that an English teacher helped change his plans of becoming a sailor ("Even though I can't swim," he chuckles) after reading a poem about a monster called Beowulf. "That was it," he recalls. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life." Which was study monsters.
In Deformed Discourse, Williams explores the concept of monsters in the Middle Ages by examining its theological and philosophical roots and its symbolic function in mediaeval art and literature. The book is divided into three parts; the first chronicles various philosophies on monster imagery, while the second catalogues the different grotesque forms used in mediaeval times (many of these are illustrated using images mostly culled from the McLennan, Blackader-Lauterman and Blacker-Wood libraries). The third part looks into the use of monsters in three great sagas, like Oedipus, and three saints' lives.
"The book looks into what draws an artist to the image of the deformed and why it is such a useful vehicle of expression," says Williams, noting there is an "enormous number" of monsters in the literature and art of the Middle Ages. Monster imagery, he continues, is used to illustrate how things are rarely the way they truly appear. "Monsters are used as a necessary corrective to the vanity of human intellect, to critique human institutions, ideas and reality. They remind us that our truth is not necessarily the truth."
While admitting that he is no scholar of modern literature, Williams does think that monsters have lost some of their symbolic bite over the years. "Monsters used to exist on the outskirts. They were associated with a sort of therapeutic defiance of the orthodoxy." Swallowed up by the mass media today, monsters are now more the stuff of entertainment, pure and simple.
"In a sense, Stephen King and Marilyn Manson are part of our central culture" in a way that wasn't true of monsters in the past, argues Williams. "If I came here from another planet, I might find that Marilyn Manson was typical of our culture, rather than atypical."
Williams is now working on a book on the Bible and literature. While he admits writing steals time from his family and leisure activities, he says it's part of being a scholar, which is not a nine-to-five job. The minute academics get home, Williams chortles, "they rush off to their computers to write." Yet he continues to write regularly, he says, "because I love doing it. It's fun. Pure fun." He sounds like one scholar content that he never went to sea.